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History of Psychiatric Hospitals

Enjoy this three-part series describing the history of New Hampshire Hospital, written by Director of Psychology, Paul Shagoury. These articles originally appeared in the Hospital newsletter, The Pulse.

Part I | Part II | Part III | PDF of this article Adobe Acrobat Reader Symbol

Part I

The beginning of the story of what is now New Hampshire Hospital (NHH) lies in a fascinating report made to the New Hampshire legislature in 1836. This dusty and long-forgotten report describes the results of a study ordered the previous year by the New Hampshire Legislature at the urging of Gov. Samuel Dinsmore. The Report on the Insane in New Hampshire describes the effort undertaken by the Legislature to gather information on the number of "Insane" throughout the State. At that time (1836), the Report concluded, of the 193,569 inhabitants of New Hampshire, the number of Insane reported was 312. Of these, 152 were "paupers" supported entirely at public charge, and 160 were "not paupers". How the information in this Report was gathered is its own lively but separate story. Also a separate story is the lurid descriptions of the various conditions of New Hampshire's "insane" that are recounted in the Report (the kind of reading that you can't stop yourself from continuing, no matter how much it horrifies). This Report argued for better care of those New Hampshire citizens afflicted with mental diseases.

Not only were the numbers and conditions of those judged to be "insane" described, but also the Report discussed the remarkable successes of Asylums that had been established in Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine. The early 1800's was a time when our country was strongly affected by social welfare concerns. Liberty, Justice and the Pursuit of Happiness were fresh and exciting parts of the American experiment that was unfolding. Improving the quality of life for all citizens during these early decades of the nineteenth century was a vibrant, deep and widely embraced value. Here is a quotation form the Report that captures the growing national spirit of care and responsibility for the mentally ill; "the patient is to be treated with the greatest kindness... and so far from arriving at a madhouse, where he is to be confined, he is come to a pleasant and peaceful residence, where all kindness and attention will be shown him, and where every means will be employed for the recovery of his health." And further, "The law of kindness is the most effectual control for mental or moral alienation... No violence is permitted and no restraints allowed, but such as are necessary for the welfare of the patient. The attendants are required to be mild, forbearing, neither to be harsh in language or in manner." And the final description of the treatment," a continued endeavor to preserve or re-establish the health of the patient by careful attention to cleanliness, exercise, air and a suitable diet.... and to exclude as far as in manner possible all causes of mental disquietude ... and by imbuing in every practicable way the minds of the patients with a new set of pleasing, cheerful, and benevolent emotions... the whole scheme of this moral treatment is embraced by a single idea, humanity – the law of love – that sympathy which appropriates another's consciousness of pain and makes it a personal relief from suffering, whenever another's sufferings are relieved". This was the ideal on which New Hampshire's new asylum was to be founded.

The Report to the Legislature was persuasive in presenting its case. The Legislature in 1836 set aside money for the construction of an Asylum to relieve the suffering of the more than 300 New Hampshire residents discovered to be, as described in the Report, living in vile, degrading conditions. The result was funding to construct within New Hampshire and for the people of New Hampshire an Asylum for the Insane. A committee of trustee’s was appointed to oversee the creation of New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane.

The competition for location of the Asylum was fierce, especially between Concord and Portsmouth. Portsmouth's argument was twofold; firstly that it was "the best fish market in the world and that fish was the cheapest and best food for insane persons", and secondly, that Portsmouth was "in the neighborhood of Genteel Society". We shall never know how Concord society was viewed by the Trustees but Concord won the dispute by a pragmatic decision to contribute the land (120 acres – the present campus between Fruit, Pleasant and Clinton Streets) In January, 1841 the trustee's announced the choice of Concord, disappointing the hopes of the Genteel Society of Portsmouth, and the construction began. The cost of constructing the Asylum, which is what we now call Main Building, was approximately $20,000. As the building became ready, staff was hired, including Dr. George Chandler as the Superintendent and only physician. Dr. Chandler came highly recommended from his service at the Worcester Asylum where he had worked for eight years prior to the founding of New Hampshire Asylum. Attendants were also hired. They and Dr. Chandler resided in Main Building along with the patients. The doors opened in late October 1842, to receive the first patient.

This first patient was a 35-year-old married farmer from Tuftonboro, New Hampshire. He was admitted in the grips of a "religious excitement" that had taken reason from his mind and pleasure from his life. He was treated with the "Moral Treatment" program described above and released after two and half months "improved". He was never readmitted and presumed "cured".

New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane developed quickly a reputation for its powerfully effective treatments of kindness, and forbearance, in an atmosphere of peace and encouragement. The next two installments will describe the growth and challenges to New Hampshire Asylum's treatment success. Today's NHH was born in an attitude of kindness and with a commitment to energetic restoration of the mentally ill in New Hampshire; that same attitude and that same commitment continue to characterize our work here today.

Part I | Part II | Part III | PDF of this article Adobe Acrobat Reader Symbol

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New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services
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